Prior to Saturday night’s CIF Girls Division I Basketball quarterfinal between top-seeded Mission Hills and No. 8 seed Carlsbad, Coach Chris Kroesch told his team that “all they needed to do was win by one.” Maybe they were trying to take him literally.
After watching Carlsbad out-hustle, out-execute and generally control the action for nearly the entire contest, the host Grizzlies got the lead back for the first time since the opening minutes of the second quarter on a short hook by sophomore Kennan Ka with 1:56 remaining in regulation. They then made all the plays they needed to in the waning moments to escape with a 54-52 decision.
The victory elevates Mission Hills to 19-11 on the season and pits them against No. 4 Mount Miguel in next Tuesday’s D-I semi-finals. Carlsbad’s season ends at 21-9.
After suffering through a hard-to-explain mid-season slump, Mission Hills had seemingly gotten its house in order, winning five-of-six games leading into this one, the last three by a whopping 53-pt. average margin. Those numbers weren’t relevant Saturday.
“We were fortunate to pull it out,” said Kroesch, who knows a little bit about winning, having piloted his program to three CIF Open Division titles (four overall) and finishing second last year. “I’m happy we won but they did a better job than us.
“You have to tip your hat to Carlsbad. I thought they punched us in the mouth. They played hard, beat us to 50-50 balls and killed us on the glass. Those are exactly the kind of things we have been doing to opponents in our recent games.”
Following a first eight minutes in which both teams struggled offensively, scoring a combined total of just 16 points, Carlsbad took command in the second, outscoring the Grizzlies, 25-14, with 6-foot junior Renza Milner dominating the post to the tune of 12 points.
Coach Donna Huhn’s squad took a 32-23 edge into the locker room at half and still led by four after three periods. Kroesch & Co. started knocking on the door and were twice able to tie it in the closing quarter before finally breaking through on Ka’s bucket, the last made field goal of the night.
It was a crazy final 90 seconds. A huge block inside by Mission Hills sophomore Olivia Keltner, a pair of missed Carlsbad free throws, a defense-driven shot clock violation against the Lancers, followed by a missed bank shot from close range sealed the verdict.
Junior guard Gigi Israel paced the Grizzlies with 13 points, including three second half treys that were instrumental in her team’s comeback. Sophomore Amber Schmidt had a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Keltner, who Kroesch called, “our player of the game,” scored eight key points off the bench.
For Carlsbad, Milner, who’s made huge strides over the course of the season, netted a game high 19 before fouling out late. Freshman Maddie Huhn chipped in with 10 and floor general Alexa Mikeska had nine while playing a central role in her team’s ability to handle Mission Hills’ full-court defensive pressure.
Mission Hills came into Saturday’s clash with the pedigree, seeding and home court working in their favor but Huhn’s young (just one senior) Lancers had the Grizzlies on the ropes most of the night. When the hosts made a run, Carlsbad was always able to answer, until the final stretch.
“This is a tough loss because we had control until the last minute and a half,” said Huhn, who guided Carlsbad to the CIF Division II crown in 2019. “We have a great team that competed very hard. Our game plan was to take away Ka and Jessica Grant (9 and 3 points respectively) and I thought we did that.
“We made a few key turnovers and missed a couple of shots at the end but those are things a young team, that’s mostly freshmen and sophomores, won’t do next year. They made some mistakes and will learn from them but this is going to sit with us for a while.”
Kroesch is hopeful his crew realized a few things too. “I told our girls ‘it’s playoff time, everybody is going to be playing hard,’ and we’ve got to make sure our effort is bigger than theirs,” he said. “I’m not sure it was tonight. We didn’t execute very well defensively and every time we screwed up, which seemed like 95% of the time, they made us pay.
“We got through but we’re going to have to be better if we expect to win next week.”